Political Intelligence

Scott Brown asbestos fact check: True but misleading

One of the toughest charges Senator Scott Brown leveled against Elizabeth Warren in Thursday’s debate involved her work for Travelers Insurance in a case involving asbestos victims. Brown said Warren, who has built her reputation as a consumer advocate, helped a major insurance company deny payment to asbestos poisoning victims.

Brown’s facts were largely true, but the impression he left was somewhat misleading.

“You chose to side with one of the biggest corporations in the United States: Travelers Insurance,” Brown said Thursday night. “When you worked to prohibit people who got asbestos poisoning, and I hope all the asbestos union workers are watching right now. She denied, she helped Travelers deny those benefits for asbestos poisoning, made over $250,000 in an effort to protect big corporations. There is only one person in this debate, right now Jon, who is protecting corporations. She has a history of it.”

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Warren responded without offering many details: “I’ve been out there working for people who have been injured by big corporations,” Warren said. “I’ve been out there working for people who have been injured by asbestos. I’ve been doing that for years and years, and years…”

Brown continued to hammer her, saying “she had a choice, and she didn’t fight for the victims.” He then said she was paid “$225,000, give or take a thousand here and there.”

The Globe printed an extensive examination of the complicated case in May. Here’s an important conclusion—on a very murky subject—that the article reached:

“It is clear that Warren received a substantial amount of money to help the company win immunity from all future [asbestos-related] lawsuits, with the expectation that the company would have to pay the [$500 million] settlement. But Warren’s work on the case may also have helped Travelers indirectly lay the groundwork for its current position, a position Warren and several other lawyers involved on both sides of the case say they did not foresee: where Travelers has immunity from most suits without having to pay the settlement.”

The Globe reported that Warren was paid $212,000 by Travelers from 2008 to 2010, according to her government disclosure forms, which were required when she worked in Congress and the Obama administration, and when she declared as a Senate candidate.

It is also true that a $500 million trust fund established to pay plaintiffs in asbestos cases has not been paid out because of a court order that Travelers won after Warren’s work on the case ended. It is also true that Warren, a top bankruptcy specialist at Harvard Law School, helped Travelers win a Supreme Court case that gave the company immunity from most asbestos lawsuits.

In the words of one judge, Travelers received “something for nothing” because it got that immunity, yet it no longer has to pay out the trust.

But at the time Warren worked for Travelers on the Supreme Court case, most asbestos victims and their attorneys were actually on her side of the issue. She was fighting, she says, to unlock the $500 million trust, which Travelers said at the time it was willing to pay out in order to gain immunity and settle all the outstanding claims. Warren has also said that her work was intended to preserve an important principle in bankruptcy law that would encourage bankrupt companies to leave money available to future victims of large-scale corporate malfeasance. Without the promise of immunity from future lawsuits, these companies have no incentive to establish such trusts, she argues.

But regardless of her motives, the case has turned out disastrous for the victims, leaving room for Brown and others to argue that she should have been more suspicious of Travelers’ motives. Brown did not mention that he has also benefited from Travelers, in a smaller way than Warrren. His campaign received $9,000 from the company’s political action committee over the last two years.

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